In a scene from CBS’ hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,
Robert David Hall’s character, medical examiner Al Robbins, MD, is
interrupted as he jams to the radio and nails a complicated riff on his
air guitar. His talent is natural, his guitar—a crutch. While
many writers feel the need to center a part around the character’s
disability, the crutch’s sometimes doubling as an air guitar is the
extent of its scripted role in this No. 1 drama. Robbins is not defined
by his disability, but rather the assistance he is able to provide to investigators
of Las Vegas’ CSI unit by applying his extensive knowledge of forensic
Robert David Hall - interview by Chet Cooper
A seasoned actor, Hall has appeared in such films as Starship Troopers
and The Negotiator, as well as the Emmy award-winning TNT mini-series
Andersonville. His television roles have included guest appearances
on Family Law, The Practice and The West Wing, to name
a very few. His voice has been heard in hundreds of commercials, animated
series and narrations.
One of the most prominent actors with a disability working today, Hall found
that his role as a burn survivor in Michael Apted’s film Class
Action closely paralleled real life. In 1978, an 18-wheel truck struck
Hall’s car and he was severely burned when his gas tank exploded.
After several months in a burn unit and the amputation of both legs, he
now walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs.
Hall has just completed his term as a national board member of the Screen
Actors Guild (SAG) and is national chairman of the performers with disabilities
caucus for SAG, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
(AFTRA) and the London-based trade union Equity. He serves on the board
of directors for the National Organization on Disability, as well as the
Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices Project, which promotes empowerment
of writers and performers with disabilities in the American theater. He
is also a member of the Mutual Amputee Foundation, where he visits recent
ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently sat down with Robert
David Hall in his Los Angeles-area home to discuss his passionate love of
music (which extends beyond air guitar), acting and advocacy.
Chet Cooper: You have quite a collection of instruments. How many
do you play?
Robert David Hall: Guitar, piano and mandolin. I also used to play flute
and French horn when I was younger. I played in a series of semi-good
and semi-crappy bands and I loved it.
CC: Did you make them semi-good or semi-crappy?
RDH: (laughs) In some ways semi-good, I think.
CC: Do you still perform?
RDH: Yep. My friend and I play two or three times a year. One of our buddies
is a studio harmonica player who’s outrageously talented and we
have a few guitar players who are great. I pretty much spent my twenties
as a musician and taking acting classes. I loved it. I was at UCLA getting
As and Bs in English and creative writing, basically trying to stay out
of the Army. All I really wanted to do was play music. At some point you
turn 27 or 28 years old and you say to yourself, “God, I’m
getting up there.” You think you are so old at that age. That’s
when I got into radio. The day of my accident I worked the morning shift
on a local radio station, I wrote copy for an ad agency for two hours
and then I took an acting class. I was like the guy who didn’t know
what he wanted to be when he grew up. A musician, a voice-over guy, an
CC: A surfer?
RDH: I was never much of a surfer. Back in the day—I’m a bit
older than you (laughs)—we had long boards and we didn’t
use ankle leashes the way they do today. The first time I almost died
was surfing; I got hit on the head with a board. I went under and started
swimming until I hit the bottom of the ocean. I thought, “Oh my
God, I’m going the wrong way. Do I have enough air to get back up?”
If you’re a surfer you know the feeling.
CC: Absolutely. And the big boards hurt when they conk you in the
RDH: Boy do they ever.
CC: But it’s nothing like getting hit by a semi truck!
RDH: (laughs) No kidding. Here’s the abridged version of
the story because I hadn’t thought about it for 20 years or so until
CSI people started asking me, “How did you become disabled?
What’s the deal?”
It was July 10, 1978, a special day because I was selling my Volkswagen.
I had washed and waxed it, and the buyer was going to give me twelve hundred
bucks for it—the most money I had ever gotten in my hand at one
time. I was going to buy my first new car—a Honda Civic, I think.
I was heading north on the San Diego Freeway at about two o’clock
in the afternoon, and there was a lot of construction. Coming the other
way was a truck driver hauling a double-wide load of dirt or gravel. The
guy had just stopped off at a bar for a six-pack lunch, and he went right
through the chain-link fence dividing the highway and ran me over. He
just came out of the blue. I tried to react but he was on me, and I was
trapped under tons of metal. The freeway was chaotic; others had been
hit by the truck and people were kind of unaware of me. So I’d survived
the crash, but…
CC: Wait a minute, so you did survive?
RDH: I survived.
CC: Okay, good.
RDH: (laughs) No, I died and came back; I’m reborn. Seriously,
I knew I was injured, but I didn’t know quite where I was. I figured
something really horrible had happened, and then my gas tank exploded.
Referring to me, I heard a cop yell, “Forget about him!” They
were afraid the truck’s gas tank was going to explode. When I heard
that cop I started screaming my lungs out like I’ve never screamed
before and I hope to never scream again. Two guys, a welder who had just
retired and another trucker, jammed a fire extinguisher into where they
thought I might be and they managed to put out the fire. I remember the
sounds and the smells, and I remember a million people all around me.
CC: What was going through your mind at that time?
RDH: It’s funny what you think about during chaotic or traumatic
times. I had just bought a new pair of Levis and I remember looking down
and they were black. I thought, “These were blue jeans—they’re
not black, they’re supposed to be blue.” Some of the guys
came to visit me later in the hospital and they said I’d been one
of the funnier guys they had ever scraped off the highway. I said, “Funnier?
What do you mean?” I had been in shock, and I guess at the time
I was convinced that if I stopped talking I would die, so—according
to them—I’d babbled like nobody they had ever heard. I do
remember telling them what I’d studied in school, my favorite records,
my favorite movies, every girlfriend I’d ever had, where I lived,
who my brother and sisters were. They said, “You yakked all the
way to the hospital. When they finally jammed all the anesthesia into
you, you shut up.”
CC: Were you burned?
continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe
Read the rest of the interview with your order of ABILITY
Magazine. Other articles in the Robert David Hall issue include Letter
From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Cell It Somewhere Else;
Headlines: MS, Alzheimer's, Flu Benefit & Tsunami Relief; Senator
Harkin: Disability Rights Abroad; Media Access: Pursuing Inclusion and
Representation; Behavior-Based Interviewing: Identifying Ability; Innovations:
Balance Sport Wheelchairs; Motor Vehicle Accidents: Frightening Statistics;
Test Drive: Get Off Your Knees; Recipes: Coast to Coast Cuisine; Ability
Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!